Theater Stage photo

#CertStudy, Day 6: Dynamic theories of identity, part 1 (Goffman)

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

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I missed yesterday so I could push hard on a journal article and finish a video I’m excited to post soon, but I’m back in the saddle today to start writing about theories of identity.

The place where most people interested in identity and the Internet begin is Erving Goffman’s Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. It is a delightful read—a bit old fashioned and hegemonic, to be sure, but lucid and provocative and mostly right, I think.

Goffman uses the metaphor of players onstage (and backstage) to explore the ways we “perform” identity in public (and private). Onstage we engage in “impression management”; we wear the mask associated with our performance; we adhere rigidly to a carefully cultivated script. Backstage we let our guard down a bit, attend to biological needs, engage in “coarser” banter. But there are “standards of decorum” here too, albeit different ones.

Goffman masks gif
I used this illustration of our different “masks” for different social situations (at home, at school, at church, at work) while teaching this summer in Germany.

I like the way Goffman writes about the This Is Water phenomenon:

In the study of social establishments it is important to describe the standards of decorum; it is difficult to do so because informants and students tend to take many of these standards for granted not realizing they have done so until an accident, or crisis, or peculiar circumstance occurs. (p. 68)

Making tacit social practices explicit is, of course, what makes “social turn” disciplines both rich and challenging. In particular, the process is precisely the “stuff of learning” in Lave and Wenger’s situated account of cognition.

Germane to my interest in religious spaces and how they shape the learning that happens there is Goffman’s account of the materiality of these regions.

The decorations and permanent fixtures in a place where a particular performance is usually given, as well as the performers and performance usually found in it, tend to fix a kind of spell over it; even when the customary performance is not being given in it, the place tends to retain some of its front region character. Thus a cathedral and a schoolroom retain something of their tone even when only repairmen are present, and while these men may not behave reverently while doing their work, their irreverence tends to be of a structured kind, specific ally oriented to what in some sense they ought to be feeling but are not. (p. 76)

The mobility afforded by Digital Storytelling on iPads, etc., strikes me as interesting in this regard. What would it be like to hold a faith-based digital storytelling workshop in a Sunday school room? Or better yet a Cathedral? How might the “spell” interfere with or enrich the learning? I don’t have a hypothesis, but I definitely want to know.

We can see a little more clearly some of the implications for reflections on online identity in passages like this one, pondering what happens when we “witness a show not that was not meant for us”:

The answer to this problem is for the performer to segregate his audiences so that the individuals who witness him in one of his roles will not be the individuals who witness him in another of his roles. Thus some French Canadian priests do not want to lead so strict a life that they cannot go swimming at the beach with friends, but they tend to feel that it is best to swim with persons who are not their parishioners, since the familiarity required at the beach is incompatible with the distance and respect required in the parish. (p. 83)

Technology affords (an at least theoretically possible) segmentation of audiences pretty effortlessly, either through choice of public platform, multiple accounts, or scrupulous attention to privacy settings and follower lists. But consider Elizabeth Drescher’s portrait of today’s “integrated digital habitus,” or Meredith Gould’s advice that clergy share not just in their “official voice” but in a more personal mode as well. These reflect a recent blurring of Goffman’s front and back regions (i.e., “there’s no such thing as privacy” online).

Still, we can understand the effects of this blurring in Goffman’s terms. For instance, audience segregation for religious leaders often leads to a problematic lack of accountability (think of the acts we reserve for private spaces and how often they get abused by people in power). It can also create a “peerless pedestal” effect that renders the advice either feeble (for the skeptical hearer, who may not be interested in, say, marital counseling from a celibate priest) or overly rarified and likely unachievable (for the hyper-reverent ones, usually).

By way of a transition now, note that Goffman quotes Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as an example of the performance of gender, where the unit of analysis is not so much public/private but in the presence/absence of men:

Confronting man woman is always play-acting; she lies when she makes believe that she accepts her status as the inessential other, she lies when she presents to him an imaginary personage through mimicry, costumery, studied phrases. These histrionics require a constant tension: when with her husband, or with her lover, every woman is more or less conscious of the thought: ‘I am not being myself:’ the male world is harsh, sharp edged, its voices arc too resounding, the lights are too crude, the contacts rough. With other women, a woman is behind the scenes; she is polishing her equipment, but not in battle; she is getting her costume together, preparing her make-up, laying out her tactics; she is lingering in dressing-gown and slippers in the wings before making her entrance on the stage (p. 70)

The matter of whether we “lie” when we perform our identities is tied to questions of both agency (from a socio-cultural perspective) and development (in a more cognitive vein). I’ll consider these issues in the next couple posts.


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